How Not to Improve Building Safety in Israel

There’s no point adding a few more government inspectors to check construction sites. So what can be done?

Rescue services search through the rubble after a building site collapsed in Tel Aviv, September 5, 2016.
Nir Elias, Reuters

The collapse of a parking lot under construction in north Tel Aviv Tuesday, killing four, yet again exposed one of the weakest points in the Israeli construction industry: supervision. Yet again we learned the embarrassing statistic – that there are just 17 Economy Ministry inspectors responsible for overseeing 13,000 construction sites. Does it need spelling out that with a ratio like that, there’s no way that government supervision could be effective?

In practice, the inspectors struggle to contend with what is looking like a systemic problem in the Israeli construction business: safety. On average, since 2010, about 20 to 40 workers have died every year in construction accidents, and there is no evidence that things are improving. The fact that Israelis increasingly live in residential high-rises hasn’t led to better safety procedures for working on upper stories of buildings, leading to more fatalities from falls.

For five years now — a period in which residential building starts boomed — fatalities in construction work have continued unabated without anybody troubling to tweak safety procedures, or beef up budgets for enforcement. That is a fundamental oversight. It is Israeli nonchalance at its worst, by both the building contractors and the government. Everybody knows there’s a problem, and that it’s been getting worse, and it’s clear that answers are needed, but nobody lifts a finger to do anything.

The government’s insouciant attitude toward work safety is especially irksome, given that it was fully aware of the problem and even named a professional committee to discuss safety and health at work.

Ever since the committee filed its report in April 2014, it has been collecting dust at the treasury. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon didn’t put it into the budget for next year, probably due to pressure from the builders’ lobby, which wailed that enforcing better safety procedures will cost money and jack up construction costs.

Thus a systemic problem remains systemic because systematically, it isn’t being solved.

Make the builders do it

The committee on work safety devoted a fat chapter to accidents in the construction industry, which is responsible for half the work fatalities in Israel over the last five years.

Among other things, the committee urged that site managers be given more training on safety when working on high-rises, that new standards be determined for building scaffolding, and that fencing around building sites be mandatory. It also recommended that sites be off-limits to everybody but authorized persons; to appoint mandatory safety managers at major construction sites; to improve enforcement; and to create carrots and sticks – incentives and penalties for builders based on their compliance with safety rules.

With that, the committee embraced the modern concept of supervision, which is that whether it has 17 inspectors or 1,000, the state cannot supervise all building sites in Israel at the same time. By forcing builders to hire safety managers, along with the policy of carrots and sticks, the state is simply shifting much of the supervision to the builders.

One key penalty the committee suggests is that following a fatality due to negligence at a building site, the builder would lose social-security coverage (technically, indemnification from the National Insurance Institute). Meaning, the builder will have to cover the disability and rehab costs for the injured worker. Present practice is that the NII covers the costs of the injured worker and the builder has zero exposure to risk, beyond the extremely remote possibility of criminal charges (about four charges like that are filed each year).

So, the modern concept of supervision, that shifts the burden to the contractor but also gives the state effective enforcement tools, through those carrots and sticks, is starting to take shape in Israel. But it’s still just the beginning.

The public has no idea

The scandal involving salmonella in breakfast cereal last month spurred a whole bunch of manufacturers to hastily announce inspections of their production facilities and to admit to every last germ they found.

Now, the Health Ministry is responsible for supervising food quality but it cannot visit each and every plant and scrutinize every last assembly line. In the case of the cereals, it was the manufacturer Unilever that first noticed the salmonella contamination and independently stopped supplying the product (except for a small amount that apparently got onto the market after all).

The public exposure of the problem, and the fact that Unilever was caught lying about it, turned a non-event into a huge uproar, and every last food manufacturer sat up and took notice: Don’t lie, don’t fudge – inspect, and admit. Supervision by the market itself created new norms without the Health Ministry having to hire a single new inspector.

The market inspecting itself created the best supervision of all. Not government.

But what worked for the food industry – resulting in effective supervision by the market itself – will be more complicated in construction, because of the public’s inability to check and supervise the quality of construction, and its safety.

The systemic problem in Israeli construction is safety, not the quality of the work itself. The collapse of the parking lot that Africa Israel was building in north Tel Aviv was apparently the result of flawed engineering planning; it’s not likely that any inspector from the Economy Ministry could have noticed the problem. City Hall’s engineering department, which approved the plans, is the one that should have checked the engineering plans; and the supervision of the site should have ensured that building was progressing as planned.

Construction pros feel that part of the problem is the lowly status of the inspectors on the sites, and the absence of a mandatory independent inspector not associated with the builder.

Meanwhile, the state is trying to make life easier for small builders, so it decided to relieve them of the bureaucratic requirements that ban inexperienced builders from taking on big projects. The state is also letting small builders get away with hiring the services of an engineer for each project separately, rather than employing one on a permanent basis.

Construction engineers naturally do not appreciate these recommendations, but the fact is that the two worst construction accidents in the last year, the collapse of porches on a Gindi residential high-rise and now the collapse of the parking lot, were both projects by giant companies of the highest ranking, which naturally have plenty of construction engineers on their payrolls.

Do not mistake bureaucracy for regulation, and don’t make kneejerk demands for more regulation. Obviously something is not working when it comes to inspecting safety in the construction industry; clearly more inspectors are needed. But the main thing is to give inspectors more power to make the builders take responsibility, through clever carrots and sticks. The combination of efficient government supervision with independent supervision by the contractors (if only for fear of the sticks) is the way to improve building safety in Israel.